The state's investigation of allegations of poor management and inadequate care at Casa Pacifica children's shelter and residential facility has been halted until a review team can visit the facility and conduct its own evaluation.
In an unprecedented move, the Department of Social Services is assembling a seven-member team that will spend up to one week at the facility this month in order to gain a better understanding of the daily routines now under scrutiny.
The team, which will include county and state officials as well as representatives from Community Care Licensing (CCL), will then offer its own recommendation for Casa Pacifica's future.
"Everything is on hold," said state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley).
The review team will have an opportunity to see Casa Pacifica's programs first-hand, rather than reading reports, said Linda Lewis, executive director of the Assn. of Children's Services Agencies, who has agreed to participate on the team.
"Bringing in people from different perspectives to look at the situation . . . and make specific recommendations about how those issues might be addressed is a very supportive rather than punitive way of dealing with this," Lewis said.
Casa Pacifica has asked CCL several times to send out its technical support team to make recommendations. But the agency has denied the request, saying it does not provide that support when it is investigating a facility.
The problems Casa Pacifica experiences are similar to other facilities that have no control over who they take into the program, Lewis said.
"But most shelter programs that don't have intake control are county operated and, therefore, are not licensed," she said. "Having Community Care regulations involved here is an additional complication that other similar shelter programs do not have to deal with.
"The kinds of behaviors and problems that have occurred at Casa Pacifica are not unknown to other facilities dealing with the same level of disturbance in the children," Lewis said.
The decision to send a review team to Casa Pacifica comes after Casa Pacifica and Ventura County officials met with state Department of Social Services officials in Wright's office last week.
"The purpose of the meeting was to tell the state that we want to avoid the legal process Community Care Licensing is bent on pursuing," said Casa Pacifica Executive Director Steve Elson.
He said he wants to pursue an agreement of how the facility should proceed rather than have CCL pursue revocation of its license and then work out a correction plan.
Revocation or probation would hurt the facility's ability to raise money from private donors, Wright said.
Since Ventura County's only emergency and residential treatment program for abused and neglected children opened its doors in July 1994, CCL has issued 50 citations--with 57% of these issued since October, when the investigation began.
Citations are evenly split between the residential care facility and the shelter program and range in severity from a child inadvertently brushing her teeth with athlete's foot medicine to a sexual assault of a toddler by a 9-year-old boy.
If the state decides not to revoke Casa Pacifica's license, it would then put it on probation and hammer out an agreement on how the facility plans to remedy its violations, according to CCL officials.
Since October, Casa Pacifica has added staff to increase supervision in the cottages, modified incident reports to include more information and adopted a one-on-one safety watch for children found to pose a danger to themselves or others.
"In response to citations, Casa Pacifica has already developed and implemented extensive plans of correction," Elson said. "With this population, incidents will occur no matter how effective everything we do is."
Casa Pacifica's board of directors also voted Wednesday to seek national accreditation from a council that has standards for both shelter care and residential treatment and whose standards exceed state regulations.
The public policy issues of providing care for California's at-risk children also surfaced at last week's meeting. Elson has commented that Casa Pacifica has become the lightning rod for these larger issues.
"The state department was interested in what's called 'unconditional care,' meaning that we take everyone--it's a no-reject, no-eject policy," Elson said. "But when we have that kind of program, we are going to be subject to more risk than the average provider who discharges children creating major problems."
The County Board of Supervisors will also decide at Tuesday's meeting how it will proceed with Casa Pacifica.
Supervisor Frank Schillo said that the county should start sending children to foster homes until Casa Pacifica corrects its managerial problems and separates its shelter and residential care programs. This is one of the options the county's Public Social Services Agency will present to the supervisors Tuesday.
"Until the programs are separated, I don't want to send children there," Schillo said. "I can't risk sending one child there if there is a possibility of a problem. I don't want that on my conscience."
But other officials said that's not the way to go.
"Frank Schillo is dead wrong," Wright said. "Foster homes are the last thing you want for youngsters who have problems. These kids are constantly being kicked out of one place or another. What they need is stability."
County Supervisors Kathy Long and Susan Lacey agreed. They said they would support the county continuing to work with Casa Pacifica to resolve its problems.
As it stands now, Casa Pacifica has two distinct programs. The shelter is a partnership between Casa Pacifica and the county. Last year, 328 children were placed in the shelter program after being removed from their homes under court order due to physical or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment or parent imprisonment.
The second program is the 28-bed residential treatment program, run solely by Casa Pacifica as a private nonprofit. It served 39 children last year.
Other options before the board Tuesday include maintaining the current status, discontinuing the residential care program and providing only emergency shelter care, adding a shelter care cottage, or converting the whole operation to a county-run facility.
Adding a shelter care cottage is the option Casa Pacifica's board of directors unanimously approved as the option that makes the most sense for the children, the county and Casa Pacifica.
"It would give us more flexibility on campus, we'd be able to more easily separate kids by age and behavior problems and gender, both in the cottages as well as in school," Elson said.
Times staff writer Carlos V. Lozano contributed to this story.